On the surface, the request itself was kind of ludicrous, but Idris White didn’t mind humoring an inquisitive party.
Put on your salesman’s hat, and tell me why Father Judge is the best place to go for high school wrestling in Philadelphia.
White, who competes in the 170-pound weight class and is one of the school’s many stud wrestlers, kept it simple.
“We’re champions now … what more can you ask for?” White said matter-of-factly. “We’ve grown over the years and we’ve seen our success level rise. Who wouldn’t want to wrestle for a championship team? It doesn’t get much better than that.”
No, it sure doesn’t. In the roughly 10 years of the program’s existence, it’s startling how far the Crusaders have come. The rise to the top began in earnest in 2010 with the hiring of Jim Savage, who came to Judge after holding the head coaching position at North Catholic, which closed that year. Savage was known for having a keen eye for wrestling talent (even coaching White’s older brother), but could he bring glory to a dormant, unpopular program?
“When my staff and I came to Judge, we laid out a plan,” Savage said during a recent Friday evening phone conversation. “That plan was going to take us four years to get where we want to be. This is our fourth year here. Our guys, they have no fear about wrestling anymore. They believe in the training. Before, the kids in the program didn’t really care about wrestling.
“At North, wrestling was the end-all, be-all. When we closed, we brought seven kids from North with us, and they really came in and showed the Judge guys what wrestling was all about. There was a change in the culture, a change in the idea what this was supposed to be about. That was year one; now, every year more kids buy into it and improve. It’s working. They want to be a part of this.”
At this stage, it’s hard to blame them. For so long, the perception was that the city of Philadelphia just doesn’t produce top-of-the-line high school wrestlers. Football and basketball, sure, but wrestling? That was reserved for smaller cities and towns across Pennsylvania that double as breeding grounds for the sport.
However, last year — Savage’s third — changed everything. Last March, then-junior Joe Galasso became the first ever Philadelphia resident to win a PIAA state wrestling championship at the annual individual competition in Hershey. Once Galasso, who has committed to continue his career at wrestling factory Cornell University, became the first domino to fall, the rest soon followed suit.
“What Joe did was prove to everyone that you can be from the inner city and still do great things for a wrestling program,” Savage said. “I tell people all the time, he’s different. He just has ‘it.’ He wants to be great in everything he does, and he came to our program and showed people that it can be done here. He put our program on the map, and every Philadelphia wrestler should want to be Joe Galasso.”
Galasso, who, like Savage is a Port Richmond resident, came to Judge as a sophomore after spending his freshman year at Malvern Prep. He was happy to play the role of trend-setter. The way he saw it, other guys just needed to see it could be done first.
“I think people thought it was outlandish to think someone from Philly could win a state wrestling title,” said Galasso, wrestling at 145 pounds this year. “I did it, so now I think the other guys see they can do it. Coming into the season, everyone brought it up a notch, and we got over the hump, so to speak. There was just a different aura about this year’s team from the beginning.”
La Salle had owned the Catholic League the last five years, so neither Savage nor Galasso or anyone else had ever beat the Explorers in their time at Judge. That all changed this year. On Jan. 8, Judge scored a 38-27 regular season victory over La Salle, then upended the Explorers again on Jan. 29, 40-25, to capture the Philadelphia Catholic League title. Two days later, the Crusaders knocked off Northeast to win the District XII title.
“It’s an awesome feeling I can’t put into words, but I’ll try,” Galasso said. “Someone asked me to compare my win at states last year to winning a Catholic League title. I tell them that states had a different feeling, because it was just me by myself, kind of like, ‘Yeah! I won! But ugh, everyone else on my team lost.’ So to win a league title as a team was much more fun, because I could celebrate with my teammates. It was awesome. There’s no other way to explain it.”
While wrestling is indeed very much an individualized sport, there is still a strong sense of team and camaraderie, especially while training together during Savage’s grueling practices. Individual state titles are one thing, but to celebrate as an entire team shows just how far this program has come.
“The culture has changed dramatically,” Galasso said. “Now, they (teammates) don’t get scared or timid or hesitant or apprehensive. They don’t care who they’re wrestling. They just let it fly and do what they have to do to beat people up on the mat.”
Added White, currently ranked fourth in the state: “When you get to the level we’re at, it’s all mental. The one thing some guys lack is that mental edge, the one where you say, ‘I don’t care how big this guy is, I don’t care where he’s ranked or what his accolades are. I’m just going to go out and pulverize him.’ Philadelphia city wrestlers can hang with the best and compete at just as high of a level. Joe has proven that.”
Now, it’s time for the rest of the Crusaders to follow in Galasso’s footsteps. Over the weekend, all 13 wrestlers were named All-Catholic at the league showcase (White and Galasso were first-teamers), meaning all 13 qualified for the next step, which is the district tournament. According to Savage, the top four finishers in both the Catholic and Public League will advance to a regional tournament in Bethlehem, and a top-three finish there punches a ticket for the state tourney.
Last year, it was Galasso’s time. Now, it’s Father Judge’s time.
“Joe, he’s just a born leader and has taught me so much,” said freshman Trevor Elfvin. “Whenever I see he and Idris going as hard as they do, it makes me want to do exactly what they do. Watching them both wrestle has been amazing.”
“Having Joe around is great not just for myself, but everyone,” White said. “Guys respect him and do what he says. He’s on another level, and now guys know the path they have to follow to get there.”
Added Savage: “They all have dreams to become state champs. Some won’t sniff it, but they still train that way.”
Asked to put his salesman hat on as well, Galasso was also happy to oblige.
“I’ve seen Sav over the years have kids go from not knowing what a (wrestling) stance is to placing in regionals and states,” he said. “He turns no ones into someones. We’re the real deal.” ••